There's a moment, about 16 minutes into her December interview in KCRW's Santa Monica studio, when Cate Le Bon seems a bit caught off guard by a question from host Jason Bentley.
The two are talking about Le Bon's 2013 album Mug Museum, and Bentley asks about the passing of her grandmother and how it inspired the songs. Then he digs deeper.
"Can you tell us a little more about her?" he asks.
Le Bon shifts her gaze downward and half-smiles, as if her mind is suddenly flooded with things she knows she won't reveal on the radio.
"Um, yeah," the Welsh singer / songwriter says slowly, her eyes darting around the room. "Um, she was pretty batty, but she was cool." Then, nervous laughter. And that's it. She stops talking and awaits the next question.
According to a press release, Le Bon wrote the songs on Mug Museum after her grandmother's death and imbued them with the weight of the familial shift that happens when a matriarch moves on and everyone else—the females in the family, in particular—are left behind to assume new roles.
"Whereas once I was the niece and I had my Auntie Rita, I realized that now I am Auntie Rita,'" Le Bon told the Drowned in Sound website shortly after the album's release. "It's just a very palpable sense of, Oh gosh, everything is a step further on now.'"
In an interview last week with CityBeat, Le Bon again evaded a more personal question about her relationship with her grandmother.
"It's always nice to have something meaningful to write about," she says, "and after feeling this shift and mulling over it for a while, it felt like these new feelings were the things to use as a starting point."
The soft-spoken Le Bon—who'll play Soda Bar on Saturday, Feb. 1—prefers to let her music do the talking, which makes sense. Growing up in the fertile countryside of the county of Carmarthenshire, Wales, she was raised by parents who were "huge music fans" with "little patience for TV on a weekend," she said. Dad played guitar around the house and encouraged his daughters to do the same.
"The beauty of living in the country is you can turn the music up loud," Le Bon said.
A bar gig in nearby Cardiff led her to Super Furry Animals mastermind Gruff Rhys, who took Le Bon under his wing and on tour. He also asked her to sing on Stainless Style, the first album by Neon Neon, his collaborative project with American electronic musician Boom Bip. She followed that up with her debut album, 2009's Me Oh My, and an excellent sophomore effort, 2012's Cyrk, which drew comparisons to The Velvet Underground, Nico and Stephen Malkmus in The New York Times—neither the first nor last publication to invoke those artists when writing about Le Bon.
But her fizzy, unconventional psych-pop comes fully into focus on Mug Museum, a compact and relentlessly catchy tour of Le Bon's deliciously off-kilter melodic sense. Throughout, she coos in Welsh-accented English as barbed guitars flutter and rhythms shift unexpectedly. The whole thing somehow feels both precisely plotted and proud of its rough, hand-crafted edges.
That was by design. Mug Museum was produced by Noah Georgeson, best known for his work with folk singers Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart. The two tackled the recording process with what Le Bon has called "casual brutality" as a guiding principle.
"We would waste as little time as possible by making final decisions very quickly and deleting things immediately if they did not deserve their place," she said. "It was very laid back but decisive."
And effective at that. "I Can't Help You" kicks off the album with a steady motorik beat and a roller-coaster guitar lick before settling into its mildly discordant chorus. "Are You With Me Now?" ambles along at an easygoing pace while Le Bon continues to play it close to the vest: "There is a feeling I love/ buried in my brow."
Later, "Sisters" is a jaunty new-wave number that puts Le Bon's low voice to work on the topic of mortality. "Mirror Me" is a gentle slip of a tune with a faint pulse and odd (but beautiful) keyboard parts that seem to sprout from the song's floor and reach for the surface. And the final, pianofocused title track finds Le Bon ensconced in the album's namesake, her "mug museum," a warm, contemplative space befitting the song's ambient creaks.
Le Bon took the recording of Mug Museum as an opportunity to move to Los Angeles, a city she'd been enamored of since rehearsing there with Neon Neon years ago. She says she loves it—its climate and the "new perspective and energy" that came with it.
"It's a baffling city but extremely beautiful. It feels like 15 different cities placed on top of one another," she says. "I cannot tell you how it's [shaped] the album.
"I think that will come from listening back in years to come."
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